‘Elvis & Nixon’
Liza Johnson
Stars: Michael Shannon, Kevin Spacey
Rating: R
3 (out of 5) Globes

As Elvis Presley, Michael Shannon does a fantastic Michael Shannon. That’s not a knock. In “Elvis & Nixon,” one of our finest and most thrillingly unpredictable actors doesn’t do the voice, doesn’t even do a Mississippi twang, and only busts out spot-on chop-socky moves sparingly, when they’ll really blow our minds. He’s kind of just doing Michael Shannon. But in doing so he gets at what his sometime director Werner Herzog calls an “ecstatic truth”: Shannon, not unlike Elvis, is a deeply strange space cadet usually off on his own eccentric mission. Elvis did what he wanted to do and didn’t cared if anyone went along with him. Ditto Shannon. And that, truly, is the definition of cool.

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Shannon, of course, is nowhere near Elvis-level cool, which is to say he’s nowhere near famous enough to do what the real deal did in “Elvis & Nixon.” It’s the tale of that time, in 1970, when The King met Tricky Dick (played by Kevin Spacey) — a stranger-than-fiction happenstance that’s already been crystallized in a 1997 Showtime movie plus an episode of “Drunk History.” This latest iteration is basically a “Drunk History” episode Stretch Armstronged to feature length and mostly bereft of loopy jokes. Indeed, apart from the chance to watch Shannon rock sequins and men’s granny glasses, it has few other reasons for existing.

But consider this: Maybe that really is enough? Technically, this is a bit of a nothing of a movie. But acknowledge that, and there are always stray bits of incidental pleasure. The set-up — in which Shannon’s not-yet-Fat Elvis, ostensibly incensed by radicals like the SDS and the Black Panthers, whimsically and successfully scored a hoe-down in the Oval Office, offering to become a “Federal Agent at Large” — is padded out so much it's funny in and of itself. Colin Hanks, as Nixon higher-up and future Watergate roadkill Egil Krogh, proves he’s a comedic genius, as long as he’s playing easily flustered suits. Spacey’s Nixon isn’t in the same universe as Shannon’s Presley, but he gets at his own “ecstatic truths” about the 37th U.S. prez while looking even less like his character than his co-star.

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It’s still The Michael Shannon Show though, and because of that "Elvis & Nixon" has more to say about the nature of celebrity than it does about politics, America, the 1970s, etc., etc. It has even more to say about Michael Shannon, actor. His Elvis is magnetic and wholly unknowable. Is he really that sincere about his distaste for civil rights rabble rousers? Does he really think the world’s most recognizable entertainer could infiltrate groups in disguise, as he suggests? The movie doesn’t have answers, but it quietly slips in suggestions that he’s rarely, if ever, on the level. At one point he disses The Beatles, only to admit in private he only did it to break down Nixon’s defenses.

Yet that suggests a more obscure, more eccentric motive, whatever that is. He spends one scene during the endless set-up confessing to a member of his posse — a nice kid played by Alex Pettyfer, who, speaking of padding, spends the movie trying to fly back to L.A. to meet his future in-laws — talking about how no one knows the real him. But even that is a bit of myth-making. He’s not letting anyone in, ever, no matter what he says, and he’ll die along with his more guarded secrets. This is a movie that’s not trying hard at anything, made by people who knew they hit a home run the second they scored Shannon’s notarized signature on the contract. They knew he’d effortlessly fill in what the decaying skeleton of a script did not. Sometimes it’s this easy.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge